We all know what left and right mean… or do we? Maybe some of the flags no longer match who’s holding them? If progress is tradition, do traditional people now enact it?
“I see trad people, walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re trad.”
None of the maps seem to fit the territories anymore, and it’s quite perplexing if you wish to make sense of today’s politics.
Why did the tech-savvy gray tribe abandon its absolute devotion to the free flow of information? Why are right wing traditionalists irreverently worshipping pagan gods and dadaist humor? Why do left wing gender egalitarians so staunchly oppose men’s rights? How on earth did the sexual revolution lead to a supposed rape culture?
Dig past the surface and it’s contradiction after contradiction. Focusing on communists on one side or fascists on the other doesn’t help, nor does redirecting the blame onto the globalists / bankers / trolls / russians / … Blue and red, purple and green, they’ve slowly but surely started to blur together, and we need to look elsewhere.
I’ve talked about the religious dimension of this conflict before, how there are obvious parallels between contemporary political practice on the left and religious ritual. Today I’d like to recast this a bit towards a related concept: tradition and orthodoxy.
Change We Can Believe In
Try to enumerate our current, western traditions, and you can come up with plenty of candidates. There’s the holidays, like Christmas with its timeless 1950s tunes. There’s personal milestones to celebrate, like baptisms, birthdays, graduations or weddings. There’s rituals, like cultural pilgrimages, music festivals and sports tournaments. Each comes with specific associated customs too. The main justification for doing them is simply that the people before us did. Traditions are the opposite of a Chesterton’s fence: we deliberately continue to engage in them, even if the original reasoning is no longer understood or even relevant.
Customs are often paired with traditional beliefs and superstitions. The Korean belief in Fan Death is a good example, remaining to this day without any scientific basis, which makes it customary for Korean electric fans to come with automatic shut-off timers lest you die from overnight exposure. Belief is not necessary though. A counter-example is Halloween in Europe. What used to be a quirky overseas television trope is slowly becoming a regular fixture, merely through the force of commercialism on one hand and enterprising children’s desire for free candy on the other.
In order to figure out what’s traditional, we need to look at which customs and beliefs are successfully transmitted from one generation to the next. Applied to the social politics of the modern age, we get a curious picture. Open rebellion against the social order has been at the forefront of the progressive identity for decades now. Whether it’s the numerous Civil Rights protests in the US, the student and labour strikes in Europe, the opposition to the Vietnam war, the trials of second wave feminism or the gay liberation movement, there’s been significant unrest. These events left iconic personalities, images and speeches behind, and instilled a sense of moral duty in those who participated.
After their respective landmark victories, these ideas did not end with the activists. Most notably, they were absorbed into the academic curriculum, explicitly through the establishment of Women’s and Ethnic Studies departments, as well as implicitly in the related fields of sociology and cultural theory. More organically, such activists naturally also passed on their politics to their children once they settled down.
It’s easy to miss that all this happened nearly 50 years ago. The American Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The first Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies courses were established in 1969. The Stonewall Riots happened in 1969 too. Education statistics show that by 1970, women were already earning over 40% of university-level degrees in the US, a fact that may surprise. Degrees by ethnicity took much longer to catch up, but nevertheless black women were already performing at near population parity at the associate level by 1981.
You can follow these trends in entertainment too. The original 1966 Star Trek was deliberately written and cast as a progressive utopia, and featured the first interracial kiss on air between Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura and Captain Kirk. This was such a landmark role in general, she was encouraged to continue by Martin Luther King Jr. himself. When The Next Generation rolled around in 1987, Whoopi Goldberg, by then a Golden Globe awarded movie star, would ask to be written onto the show to honor the role. They featured allies and antagonists of all stripes, and its subsequent sequels continued the tradition of gender blind and racially diverse casting. Science fiction and fantasy was by then no longer a stranger to iconic, strong female roles, as Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) had demonstrated. This continued into the 90s with fan favorites The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
For gay representation, curiously absent in all the Treks, the gender bending of stars like David Bowie or the bisexual exploits of Freddie Mercury helped push the envelope in the 1970s. The first serious gay characters on television appeared around the same time, though such shows would remain controversial for most sponsors and audiences until the mid 90s. The honor of the first TV lesbians in space would have to wait until 1994’s Babylon 5, around the same time that cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess (1995) appeared. By 1998, out-and-proud gay sitcom Will & Grace was getting top ratings.
All of the above takes place well before the 21st century. Nevertheless, anno 2017, the loudest and most pressing social issues on the left seem to take place in exactly the mentioned domains, namely politics, education and entertainment. You might dismiss “It’s finally time for more X in Y” as an obvious marketing ploy and tired cliché, but that doesn’t explain why so many people still take it as an obvious truth.
You could simply chalk it up to statistical illiteracy and a misguided belief in the blank slate. But strange enough, Camp Progress is also Camp Science, so they ought to welcome arguments based on empirical evidence with open arms. The fact that they don’t tells me that this belief is more than just misguided. Today’s social issues are overwhelmingly recast through the mold of yesterday’s problems. Any peg that doesn’t fit the hole, such as men seeking gender equality, or economically dispossessed whites, is shoved through regardless until only a caricature comes out the other end.
To explain this, I would offer the hypothesis that protesting against the social order has become a progressive tradition, a specific custom passed on to the next generation, and as such, people continue to do it for no reason other than its own sake. The grievances of progressivism are now like Boomer Christmas, stuck in time, repeating the same old songs over and over again, recapturing the youthful days of a generation long gone by. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real problems to be solved, it just suggests that’s not why the majority of people do it.
Moral Cause and Effect
If true, it would have a curious implication, namely that progressive activism would now appeal to those who favor upholding traditions. This has some very weird effects, and the blank slate plays a crucial role in them passing by unnoticed.
If you believe we are born formless and learn politics from our environment, then in a world where wokeness is orthodox tradition, only woke children will be raised. They would still rebel against their parents when puberty hits, but tradition would keep them coloring within the culture’s overall lines, where all forms of bigotry are absolutely haram.
However, the blank slate is looking pretty shabby these days, both from a political and moral point of view. As neatly catalogued in Hibbing et al.’s Predisposed, there is ample scientific evidence that political differences are more than philosophical or ideological: they are the result of fundamental differences in how we perceive the world around us, predisposed by our specific biology. Factoring in moral foundations theory, as studied by Haidt and Graham, it says that political differences are derived from fundamental differences in the moral values we cherish. That is, a person does not respect authority because they are conservative, rather, they are conservative because they respect authority. Our relative adherence to the principles of care, liberty, authority, loyalty and purity reliably predicts our value system.
Combining the two to suggest that our politics are in part both innate and biological might seem like a leap, but it’s far more supported than is commonly known. For example, the closest we can ethically get to controlled human genetic testing is through twin studies, and the numbers bear out that monozygotic twins are much more likely to share the same political temperament than dizygotic twins.
This suggests that if someone is predisposed towards conservatism, but is raised in a 100% progressive environment, their innate political tendencies are still going to come out. It would be similar to a gay person who cannot change their sexuality despite being raised in a strictly Christian environment. If there is no room for reflection and self-expression, it may result in a life of repression and denial. This is best exemplified by the loudly homophobic priest who’s eventually caught doing meth with a gay prostitute.
A big sign that we are onto something is that this stereotype has already found its millennial counterpart: that of the vocal male feminist who is discovered to have creeped on or sexually assaulted women, aka the Whedon Effect. It’s a trope that has appeared in the ultra-liberal scene of Hollywood, as well as with opponents of the loudly-claimed-to-be-misogynist GamerGate. Note that I’m not implying that conservative tendencies imply misogyny. Rather, I’m suggesting that a man who is predisposed to acting in a dominating or paternal role towards women but represses it, will likely turn into an abuser when their urges boil over, as their protective stance turns possessive.
Similarly, we might look for the feminine counterpart to this. It would be a woman who maintains a facade of strength and self-sufficiency, but when it comes down to it, strongly desires men to shield her from the evils of the world and provide for her. I’d offer up movie star Emma Watson. This avatar of contemporary feminism, wealthy well before age 18, launched the HeForShe campaign with a quivering voice, which acknowledged men’s disadvantages only long enough to ask that they do more to help women. She couldn’t be less like Ellen Ripley if she tried.
This is not a blanket judgement on the entirety of feminism. It’s easy to find plenty of other archetypes around that invert the gender expectation, like the submissive male orbiter or the domineering mother. It’s just bizarre that they all live side by side under a flag stamped with egalitarian ideals of equality, when they seem to want anything but.
Another big hint is the near universal characterization of the men’s rights movement as a right wing affair, in complete dissonance with their actual agenda. Their demands lean universally towards an egalitarian, non-traditional role for men. Equal custody in divorce supports fathers as fully involved parents. Banning infant circumcision goes against religious purity rituals and respects bodily autonomy. Concern for male suicide and workplace safety overwhelmingly lifts up the lower classes of society.
These are decidedly liberal, egalitarian, progressive causes. They are incompatible with contemporary feminism only because they reject the notion that men owe women more resources, consideration and empathy than they get in return. It opposes the contemporary reinterpretation of chivalry, divorced from reciprocal female obligations, which often leaves men without any ability to defend from social attacks. That the Men’s Rights Movement has a right wing reputation comes from the persistent conflation of the movement with pick up artistry, a misrepresentation which lumps together fringe discussion with satire to create an unholy amalgam of a Goldman Sachs elevator and a chess club.
This is also visible in the moral panic about rape culture on campus and elsewhere, where men and women who are equally intoxicated nevertheless share different responsibilities regarding consent. The idea that women who make accusations must be believed in order to protect victims categorically ignores that someone who is falsely accused is in fact the actual victim. You can also add in the frequent feminist mockery of male incels, involuntary celibates, coupled with worries over objectification and its futuristic endgame, the sex bot. No such taboos exist around sex toys for women. This points to a worldview where male virility derives from sexual prowess, but only when arbited by femininity, a precious and fragile quality, which is irreversibly tainted by unsavory male acts. It is the opposite of sexual liberation and egalitarian free love.
When it comes to racial issues, the contemporary left wing view is decidedly regressive too. Not only do racial minorities need safe spaces to allow segregation from the majority, but they need affirmative action, permanent special treatment based purely upon their race. Here too is a contradiction. Intersectional theory teaches privilege in terms of objective aspects of a life such as poverty, lack of access to services and a limited social network. Yet no attempt is made to redress it under the same specific framework. Instead, special rules based purely on ethnicity continue to be put in place, excluding unprivileged whites by design while providing unnecessary perks to upper class minorities.
This is the classic “soft bigotry of low expectations,” which considers certain minorities categorically unable to compete. It leaves no room for the most classic left-wing agenda point of them all, social class. Yet it is the one thing that would easily unite the disadvantaged across all of the divides now set in stone through identity politics.
The final key piece is how these issues have spread out into technology and social media. Fueled by concerns of hate, we now find tech giants like Google and Twitter enacting strict policies of soft and hard censorship. But what is supposedly done in search of safety, looks more like a witch hunt for ideological purity in practice. When the algorithms happen to restrict progressive channels, it is categorically treated as a mistake. Merely raising concerns about the creation of echo chambers is fatal, as seen with the case of ex-Googler James Damore. Most damning however is what most coverage conveniently misses: the social media mobbing and doxing commonly attributed to the right were in fact tactics pioneered and honed by progressive activists in communities like atheism, comics, sci-fi and open source, years before the moral panic ever set in. It’s a big tell that even their accusations of smokescreens and dogwhistles feature more than a little projection.
Once upon a time Silicon Valley embraced ideas such as “the internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it” and took an extremely loose stance on copyright. That’s literally how YouTube got popular, through pirated episodes of TV shows, using the 10 minute time-limit as a fig-leaf against media piracy. That’s all gone now, as they enforce copyright, demonetize and censor the politically unpopular, while explicitly funding and promoting progressive creators on the side.
When viewed under Haidt’s moral framework, this ticks all the conservative boxes. Not only are these clear quests to maintain ideological purity, but they are done by appealing to singular authority, under a strict with-us-or-against-us policy of loyalty, with little or no regard for harm minimization or freedom of expression.
It’s a play for re-establishing traditional gender roles and enacting a form of ethnic coddling. However, because the progressive orthodoxy is that of breaking the status quo and favoring women and minority issues, these get enacted as part of the nominally progressive agenda. This is what happens when people are raised to only consider progressive framings as ideologically valid.
Flip It And Reverse It
So far, I’ve mainly talked about the innate-conservative who is raised in a progressive environment, and who acts out in superficially progressive seeming ways. This might seem like little more than a convenient strawman. But the same pattern can appear in different and opposite ways, and we get some more interesting parallels.
First, let’s go back to the politically opposite situation. That of the innate-progressive raised in a conservative environment. Suppose they don’t repress their urges, but rather embrace them wholeheartedly, avoiding the gay meth priest life track, perhaps by moving elsewhere. In that case, you might end up with the type probably best exemplified by the New Atheist: loudly anti-conservative, often unproductively so, and proud of it. Namedropping the Four Horsemen of Atheism is more important than following the nuanced rhetoric of the likes of Hitchens and Harris, and the emphasis is more on adopting dogmas and arguments-as-ammo rather than being more like their idols.
Now flip that around, and what do you get? I think it looks a lot like Twitter anime nazis and kekistanis. Loudly anti-progressive, often unproductively so, and proud of it. In a symmetry that is either very surprising or not at all, we find a similar reversal of moral alignments. They have a decidedly anti-authoritarian bent, practice an open-door policy of teaming up with anyone favorable, and consider very little sacred aside from maybe their waifus. Per Haidt’s framework, they are rather unconservative right wingers. In their quest to be nominally more trad, they are abandoning tradition wholesale.
Yes, I’m deliberately speaking in stereotypes here, which means a “not all” rule implicitly applies. However, stereotypes do have predictive qualities, and in this case, I think it helps explain exactly why left and right are both extremely polarized and extremely useless designations nowadays. They have ceased to be identifiers for concrete poles of policy and morality, and have instead become mere flags of necessity to rally around by dispossessed and confused ideologies.
In all the fuss about anime nazis by the left, an important group has gone quietly unnoticed. It’s the well-adjusted ex-progressive conservative who lives in this century, who found their political alignments drifting, and for the most part is happy to let the struggles of the last century lie. They’re more concerned with what the likes of Thomas Sowell or Larry Elder are saying, minorities who don’t fit in the traditional progressive hierarchy of victimhood, and whose eloquent rhetoric is simply ignored for causing too much cognitive dissonance. In the grand narrative of the radicalization of America, as told by progressive media, there is no room for the non-alt-right.
Finally, there’s those who never felt the need to switch teams, like myself. I’m still a “classic liberal,” if I must, still gray tribeish. I still don’t feel a need to denounce social democracy as being equally evil as the actual historical failures of left wing policy. While my kind is not invisible, we also don’t get a seat at the table anymore as it has been slowly but surely rolled away from under us.
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Orthodox progressives follow a morality that is much more in line with social conservatism. The movements they oppose have traits that range from moderately to extremely liberal. Spotting the individual reversals is not that hard, but getting them acknowledged is going to be a very tall order. There is too much invested in the flags themselves to seriously consider who’s waving them.